Kathy Gonzalez, 32, has lived at the Buena Fortuna Village apartments in Visalia for three years.
She remembers her first year of residence as pleasant until the ownership of the complex changed hands, and things started deteriorating at a great speed.
“I have to smack bugs off of my face when I sleep,” Gonzalez said. “They fall from the ceiling.”
She said she has attempted to get support from the city of Visalia’s code enforcement department three times this year; each time, she provided her contact information and photos; her last attempt was on Sept. 21 . She says she has never gotten a follow-up.
“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” said an elderly resident who has lived there for two years. The tenant asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation. “I’m grateful I have a roof over my head, but this is not how anyone should live.”
Gonzalez said she came across The Fresno Bee’s renters guide published on Oct. 27 and immediately picked up the phone in hopes someone would hear her. She and about two dozen former and current residents belong to a private Facebook group where they voice desperation and frustrations about their living conditions, post photos illustrating their complaints, share resources and offer support to one another.
Although the leasing office has remained partially open through the pandemic (5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday), tenants say management has not addressed their complaints and concerns — about bug and roach infestations; water damage on their ceilings; broken appliances (refrigerators, stoves and dishwashers); rent increases; random fees and arbitrary demands for deposits, ranging from $500 to as high as $1,800.
Residents say they have also experienced water shutoffs without prior notice, low water pressure or non-working water heater — most recently during the summer when at least 45 units had no hot water for three months — and being served notices to vacate, sometimes without grace periods.
Dean Scout, who was the on-site property manager from September 2019 until he quit in September 2020, said many of the water issues stem from the outdated plumbing system.
“The plumbing company, Day and Night Plumbing, told me the system was rotten, making it impossible for hot and cold water to stay separate,” Scout said.
“This is the worst apartment I’ve ever lived in,” a previous resident stated in a Google Review. “It’s disgusting, and you will always have water issues.”
Of the 15 Google reviews since the property changed ownership in 2018, 10 are negative. The last positive review is more than a year old and stated that the property at 3527 W. Campus Ave. is a “nice quiet area.”
Who owns the complex?
Public records show that Buena Fortuna Village, an 82-unit building, was bought by Valley Investments – Sycamore LLC in 2018. The owner is listed as Amarpal Narang, with a business name of Sunaina Properties. Drishti Narang, Amarpal Narang’s daughter, is listed as “finance lead,” but she denies that her father owns the complex.
“I am unable to comment regarding ownership,” Drishti Narang said.
According to records, Amarpal Narang operates at least six other properties in the area, including the Giant Sequoia Village at 615 S. Demaree St. in Visalia; Courtyard Del Mar at 132 W. 18th St. in Merced; Buena Vista at 3112 Denver Ave. in Merced; Rio Vista at 150 Drouin Dr. in Rio Vista, and two buildings at 456 B St. and 430 S. Washington St. in Modesto.
Nathalie Mead, who was a property manager at the Buena Fortuna complex for one year, said although she quit and is no longer associated with the property, she often worries about the tenants who are left behind.
“I couldn’t do it anymore,” Mead said. “I didn’t have answers for the tenants when they asked me why they were living like that.”
Mead said she was ordered by the owner to participate in activities that made her uncomfortable, including serving eviction notices for no valid reason; building profit by minimizing spending on property maintenance, and listening to unending complaints from residents about their living conditions and rent raises, for which she had no solution.
Where is the city and advocacy support?
Tracy Robertshaw, neighborhood preservation manager for the city of Visalia, said only one complaint has been filed against the Buena Fortuna Village in the last two years. The complaint was about a broken water heater and a poorly maintained swimming pool, which were both repaired and cleaned in October.
“If the contact was regarding an issue that we could not assist with — such as harassment, random fees and rent increases — we refer them to Tulare County’s Central California Legal Service,” Robertshaw said.
The city of Visalia does not take anonymous complaints, and residents say that is why many are afraid to speak up. Robertshaw said no personal information associated with investigating a complaint is shared publicly.
Unlike Fresno which requires inspections of units to ensure they are kept in safe and habitable conditions, Visalia does not have a mandatory inspection ordinance.
Brandi Snow, housing team lead attorney with CCLS, said it’s difficult to track how many Buena Fortuna tenants her office has helped because not every call turns into a case.
“We are concerned primarily with ensuring the tenants’ rights are enforced and that the tenant maintains housing,” Snow said.
Andy Levine, organizer for Faith in the Valley, has been working with residents of Summerset Village Apartments in Fresno, which came under scrutiny in a Bee investigation after 1,000 residents went weeks without heat and hot water in 2015.
“Unless residents speak up, we don’t know how many more Summersets are out there,” Levine said. “There’s a misconception out there that renters stuck in slum housing are just ‘getting what they pay for.’”
Residents are charged extra, unusual fees
Many Buena Fortuna residents complained that they are charged an additional $20-$35 per person in a household — minors and babies included — for water, sewer, trash, landscaping and routine pest spray, on top of their rent. For some families, that amounts to an extra $75-$150 a month. The Bee confirmed this fee, listed as the “RUBS” fee, on a lease agreement.
“Except, landscaping is not done; water is cold or not working entirely for long periods of time, and pest spray is short of routine and not sufficient for the huge problem the property has,” Mead said.
Also, every tenant is charged $40 for the first copy of laundry room keys. The Bee obtained a notice that was sent to tenants in February, notifying them that the laundry rooms would be locked because of “vandalism and inappropriate behaviors” which tenants say were caused by homeless people who sometimes loiter and sleep inside the property.
Danielle Gutierrez, property manager for a complex in Fresno, said the RUBS fee per person seems “unjust” and the processing fee is “questionable.“
Greg Terzakis, senior vice president for the Central California branch of the California Apartment Association, said while there are no state laws regarding some fees like RUBS, many cities throughout California have passed regulations about these extra charges. The city of Visalia, however, has no ordinance regulating Rubs.
Rosalinda Avilla, a resident of nine years, said she received a notice of a $125 rent increase on Oct. 1, raising her rent to $1,040.78 for a two-bedroom apartment.
Drishti Narang told The Bee there were no rent increases for most tenants through 2020 because of the pandemic.
“Five of the 83 tenants, who are long-term tenants, had their rent adjusted by less than 5% to catch up to market rents at yearly renewal,” she said.
AB 1482, which became effective in January 2020, placed a limit on rent hikes and made it illegal for residential landlords to increase rent by more than 5% annually, plus the local rate of inflation. Avilla’s rent increase is more than double the limit.
Roach highway and infestation is the norm
Pests and bugs are a common presence for the residents of Buena Fortuna. The lease agreement, obtained by The Bee, has a pest and vermin addendum that states that if tenants do not report pests within 10 days of move-in, they are agreeing that their unit is in an “acceptable and pest-free environment.” The lease also states that the landlord will cover a one-time indoor pest control treatment; tenants must be responsible for any treatment after that.
A 64-year-old tenant, who also asked to remain anonymous due to fear of eviction, said she has lived in the complex for a year and cannot control the roaches, despite persistent cleaning.
“I have to cover my pots and pans while I cook because the roaches will fall inside when I open the cupboards above me,” she said.
The tenant keeps grocery bags full of roaches, labeled on a weekly basis with the dates that she kills and collects them.
Drishti Narang told The Bee that workers routinely spray the properties, most recently in October. She said roach infestation happens because tenants “choose to not cooperate or give permission to spray, given the pandemic or other health concerns.”
Many tenants said the roaches come mostly from the walls because of missing or broken baseboards.
“When I turn on my lights at night, the roaches scurry like it’s a roach highway,” one tenant said.
What’s next for the residents?
Residents at Buena Fortuna seek accountability from the owner and demand decent living conditions. Many say they have nowhere else to go.
Snow with CCLS said her staff will do their best to help residents and has alerted her Legal Advice Line staff to expect calls from Buena Fortuna Village residents. The hotline 800-675-8001 is open Monday through Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.; voicemail is available outside of phone hours.
The city of Visalia Code Enforcement hotline 559-713-4534 is open to answer questions or to file a formal complaint. A Handbook Guide to Residential Tenants and Landlords Rights and Responsibilities is also available for all California residents.
“This is exhausting,” one resident said. “You never know if you’ll be here tomorrow or what the next problem in your home will be.”